In the early centuries of Christianity, a diverse array of cults emerged that were considered to be heterodox in the eyes of the early church fathers. One of the most enigmatic of these cults was the Naassenes, a sect of early Gnostic Christians who believed in a complex amalgam of Jewish and Greek traditions. This paper will analyze the rituals, beliefs, and veneration of the snake associated with the Naassenes, and how these elements encapsulate their an unusual Gnostic worldview.
The Naassenes were based in the region of Phrygia, where the cult figure Alexander is thought to have been born and raised. Although little is known of their origins, they exhibit a hybrid of Jewish and Greco-Roman influences. This combination is reflected in their practice of incorporating certain rituals and associated symbols into their beliefs, including the veneration of the snake.
The practice of honoring the snake was incredibly important to the Naassenes, and they saw it as a way to contact the divine. They viewed the snake as a spiritual signpost of sorts, as they held it to be a representation of Adam’s wisdom. They believed that the snake represented the secret knowledge of the imago dei (the divine image) and heavenly perfection, and saw it as a conduit for the flow of the Holy Spirit. As such, veneration of the snake was seen as a way to honor the ultimate source of wisdom and knowledge, which was in turn a way to seek spiritual transformation and growth.
Aside from the veneration of the snake, the Naassenes also incorporated other symbolic practices into their ritual. One example was their ritual of water baptism, which was thought to be a symbol of purification and enlightenment. The Naassenes also included rituals associated with fasting, with their members fasting in preparation for meditation and contemplation, as well as spiritual renewal. Interestingly, the Naassenes honored a rather eclectic pantheon of deities, including figures from both the Old and the New Testaments, as well as several Greco-Roman figures, suggesting the inclusion of these gods into the cult’s beliefs.
The veneration of the snake associated with the Naassenes suggests the presence of a unique worldview within the cult. By venerating the snake, the Naassenes could draw on an animistic conception of the spiritual realm, even while also affirming monotheism. Furthermore, the inclusion of Christian and Greco-Roman elements in their rituals and beliefs shows that they were no strangers to syncretic religious practices. Thus, the veneration of the snake combined with the hybrid nature of their religious views indicates that the Naassenes were Gnostics rather than simply a group of Christians who happened to have unusual beliefs.
The Naassenes sect were known only through the writings of Hippolytus of Rome.
The Naassenes claimed to have been taught their doctrines by Mariamne, a disciple of James the Just. The retention of the Hebrew form shows that their beliefs may represent the earliest stages of Gnosticism. Hippolytus regards them as among the first to be called simply “Gnostics”, alleging that they alone have sounded the depths of knowledge.
Naassene Sermon :
The Naassenes had one or more books out of which Hippolytus of Rome largely quotes in the Philosophumena, which professed to contain heads of discourses communicated by James, the brother of Jesus, to Mariamne. They contained treatises of a mystical, philosophic, devotional, and exegetical character, rather than a cosmological exposition. A very interesting feature of the book seems to have been the specimens it gave of Ophite hymnology.
The writer (or writers) is possibly Greek. He does indeed use the Hebrew words Naas and Caulacau, but these words had already passed into the common Gnostic vocabulary so as to become known to many unacquainted with Hebrew. He shows a great knowledge of the religious mysteries of various nations. For instance, he dilates much on the Phrygian rites, and the whole section seems to be a commentary on a hymn to the Phrygian Attis.
The Naassenes so far agreed with other Ophites that they gave to the first principle the names First Man and Son of Man, calling him in their hymns Adamas.
The First Man (Protanthropos, Adamas); the fundamental being before its differentiation into individuals (cf. Adam Kadmon).
The Son of Man; the same being after it has been individualized into existing things and thus sunk into matter.
Instead, however, of retaining the female principle of the Syrian Ophites, they represented their “Man” as androgynous; and hence one of their hymns runs “From thee, father, through thee, mother, the two immortal names.” They declared that “the beginning of Perfection is the gnosis of Man, but the gnosis of God is perfected Perfection.”
Although the myths of the earlier Ophite system are but lightly touched on, there is some trace of an acquaintance with them, as for example the myth that Adam was brought forth by the Earth spontaneously; he lay without breath, without motion, without stirring, like a statue; being made after the image of the First Man, through the agency of several Archons. In order for them to seize hold of the First Man, there was given unto Adam a soul, that through this soul the image of the First Man above might suffer and be chastened in bondage.
The Naassenes taught that their primary man was, like Geryon, threefold, containing in himself the three natures to noeron, to psychikon, to choikon; and so that in Jesus the three natures were combined, and through him speak to these different classes of men. From the living waters which he supplies each absorbs that for which his nature has attraction. From the same water the olive can draw its oil, and the vine its wine, and in like manner each other plant its special produce: chaff will be attracted by amber, iron only by the magnet, gold only by the prickle of the sea-hawk, so each according to his nature attracts and imbibes a different supply from the same source.
Three classes :
Thus there are three classes of men and three corresponding churches :
- Material (the Bound)—the heathen chiefly captive under the dominion of matter.
- Psychic (the Called)—ordinary Christians.
- Spiritual (the Elect)—out of the many called, the few chosen members of the Naassene sect.
The Naassene work known to Hippolytus would seem to have been of what we may call a devotional character rather than a formal exposition of doctrine, and this perhaps is why it is difficult to draw from the accounts left us a thoroughly consistent scheme. Thus, as we proceed, we are led to think of the first principle of nature, not as a single threefold being, but as three distinct substances; on the one hand the pre-existent, otherwise spoken of as the Good being, on the other hand the “outpoured Chaos,” intermediate, between these one called Autogenes, and also the Logos. Chaos is naturally destitute of forms or qualities; neither does the preexistent being himself possess form, for though the cause of everything that comes into being, it is itself none of them, but only the seed from which they spring.
The Logos is the mediator which draws forms from above and transfers them to the world below. Yet he seems to have a rival in this work; for we have reference made to a fourth being, whence or how brought into existence we are not told, a “fiery God,” Esaldaios, the father of the idikos kosmos. That is to say, it was this fiery being, the same who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, who gave forms to the choical or purely material parts of nature. It is he who supplies the fiery heat of generation by which these forms are still continued. In this work the Logos had no part, for “all things were made through him, and without him was made nothing.” The “nothing” that was made without him is the kosmos idikos.
On the other hand, it is the Logos, who is identified with the serpent, and this again with the principle of Water, who brings down the pneumatic and psychical elements, so that through him man became a living soul. But he has now to do a greater work, namely, to provide for the release of the higher elements now enslaved under the dominion of matter, and for their restoration to the good God.
The Mysteries of the ancient world, it is taught, pertained to generation. The Lesser Mysteries pertained to the carnal, and the Greater dealt with the spiritual. Within the seed—sperma—is the Mystery of the Logos, as it is the original cause of all things that exist.
For the restoration of the chosen seed an essential condition is the complete abandonment of sexual intercourse between men and women. The captive people must pass out of Egypt; Egypt is the body, the Red Sea the work of generation; to cross the Red Sea and pass into the wilderness is to arrive at a state where that work of generation has been forsaken. Thus they arrive at the Jordan.
This is the Logos through whose streams rolling downward forms had descended from above, and generations of mortal men had taken place; but now Jesus, like his Old Testament namesake, rolls the stream upwards, and then takes place a generation not of men, but of gods, for to this name the new-born seed may lay claim (Psalms 82:6). But if they return to Egypt, that is to carnal intercourse, “they shall die like men.” For that which is born from below is fleshly and mortal, that which is born from above is spiritual and immortal. This is the divine bliss—hidden, and yet revealed—of that which was, is, and will be—the kingdom of heaven to be sought for within.
The specimens already given present but a faint idea of the author’s method of scripture exegesis. Hippolytus declares that the verses of Paul in Romans 1:27 contain the key to their whole system, which he alludes to with a great deal of innuendo:
“And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”
This “unseemly” being their Mystery of divine bliss, he states; “that heavenly, sublime, felicity, that absence of all form which is the real source of every form.” And baptism applied to none save the man who was introduced into this divine bliss, being washed with the Living Water, and “anointed with the Ineffable Chrism from the Horn, like David [was], not from the flask of clay, like Saul, who was fellow citizen with an evil daemon of fleshly desire.”
The Hermetic alchemists asserted that the Great Work was an opus contra naturam; Paul’s use of “against nature” (παρὰ φύσιν, Romans 1:26) may have been given a similar allegorical meaning by the Naassene exegete. It is certainly possible that the Naassenes viewed homosexuality as exemplifying their concept of androgyny. Carl Jung remarked, “such a disposition should not be adjudged negative in all circumstances, in so far as it preserves the archetype of the Original Man, which a one-sided sexual being has, up to a point, lost.” But as to evidence of any “unseemly” acts, Hippolytus writes that in every way, “they are not emasculated, and yet they act as though they were.”
The writer, it will be seen, makes free use of the New Testament. He seems to have used all the four Gospels, but that of which he makes most use is St. John’s. He quotes from Paul’s epistles to the Romans, Corinthians (both letters), Galatians, and Ephesians. There is a copious use also of the Old Testament; and besides we are told there is a use of the Gospel according to the Egyptians, and that of Thomas. But what most characterizes the document under consideration is the abundant use of pagan writings.
For the author’s method of exegesis enables him to find his system in Homer with as much ease as in the Bible. Great part of the extract given by Hippolytus is a commentary on a hymn to the Phrygian Attis, all the epithets applied to whom are shown when etymologically examined, to be aspects of the Logos. One of the first of the titles applied to Attis is papas—here we are taught to recognise him who brought to rest (epause) all the disorderly motion that prevailed before his appearing. To him all things cry paue, paue, ten asymphonian.
Every temple, naos, shows by its title that it is intended for the honour of the serpent naas as “the Moist Essence,” of the universe, without which “naught at all of existing things, immortal or mortal, animate or inanimate, can hold together.” Furthermore, “all things are subject to Him, and He is Good, and has all things in Him … so that He distributes beauty and bloom to all that exist according to each one’s nature and peculiarity, as though permeating all.”
G.R.S. Mead has suggested that all of this is in reference to the Kundalini:
This is the cosmic Akāsha of the Upaniṣhads, and the Kuṇḍalinī, or serpentine force in man, which when following animal impulse is the force of generation, but when applied to spiritual things makes of a man a god. It is the Waters of Great Jordan flowing downwards (the generation of men) and upwards (the generation of gods); the Akāsha-gangā or Heavenly Ganges of the Purāṇas, the Heavenly Nile of mystic Egypt.
The Garden of Eden, in the Naassene system, is the brain, and Paradise the human head, with the four rivers having special significance:
- Pishon, “that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.”
- Eyes (because of its dignity and colors that bear witness to what is said)
- Gihon, “the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.”
- Hearing (because of its being labyrinthine)
- Tigris, “that which flows the opposite way to the Assyrians.”
- Breathing (because “the current of it is very rapid; and it ‘flows the opposite way to the Assyrians,’ because after the breath is breathed out, on breathing in again, the breath that is drawn in from without, from the air, comes in more rapidly, and with greater force.”)
- Mouth (because through prayer and food, a “man is rejoiced, and nourished and expressed.”)
In conclusion, the Naassenes were an early Christian Gnostic cult whose beliefs and practices encompassed a wide range of Jewish and Greco-Roman elements. Of particular importance to the cult was the veneration of the snake, which was seen as a representation of the connection to the divine and an access point to spiritual renewal and growth. This veneration is a clear sign of their complex and syncretic worldview, and shows that the Naassenes were true Gnostics, not just eccentric Christians.
Here are some documents and books to look into further in your quest :
- A Naassene Fragment (quoted by Hippolytus as a summary of the entire Naassene system)
- The Gospel of Philip (evidently distinct from the Gospel of Philip of the Nag Hammadi Library)
- The Gospel of Thomas
- The Greek Gospel of the Egyptians
Thanks for visiting my blog! Click here to learn more and receive info about how you can make money too with a blog like this!